Is Pasta Healthy? Here’s What a Nutritionist Thinks
Registered dietitians are always asked, "Is pasta healthy?" It's not a trick question or a trick answer. Here's why pasta can be part of a healthy diet. Pasta-lovers rejoice!
Pasta is not the enemy
For something so delicious, pasta sure does get a bad rap. Is it well deserved, or an outdated carb myth?
If, like me, you’re lucky enough to live in and around New York City, you won’t be short of Italian restaurant options. Yet, any time I suggest a visit to my favorite pasta restaurant, I always get the same reaction: raised eyebrows, shocked looks, and incredulous comments about pasta.
My clients are skeptical, too, always skipping pasta because it’s high in carbs, and they think it makes them gain weight. (Here’s why you can eat carbs and still be healthy.)
Frankly, it’s time to bust these myths, and put pasta back where it belongs: on the dinner table. Because the good news is that there are studies, like one published recently in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, showing that pasta can be part of a healthy diet. In fact, if you eat pasta in appropriate amounts, you’re less likely to over-consume sugar and fat. That’s a good thing.
virtu studio/ShutterstockPasta nutrition information
Pasta is made from an unleavened dough of durum wheat flour mixed with water or eggs. It can be cooked fresh (Pasta Fresca) or dried (Pasta Secca). And it comes in a huge variety of shapes. There are more than 350 different types of pasta—from spaghetti, linguini, and fettuccine to rigatoni, ravioli, penne, orecchiette, and many more.
But durum wheat is not the only way to make pasta. With new food technologies, the options now go beyond wheat to include brown rice pasta and chickpea pasta. I’m constantly asked: Which one is healthier?
As a benchmark, a cup of regular pasta contains about 375 calories, 12.5 grams of protein, and 70 grams of carbohydrates, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The same amount of brown rice pasta has a similar makeup with 375 calories, seven grams of protein, 76 grams of carbohydrates, and three and a half grams of fiber, per the USDA. And the same amount of chickpea pasta has only 333 calories, but 25 grams of protein, and 14 grams of fiber, making it the more attractive of the three. Of course, there are other factors to consider, when considering your choice of pasta, one of the most important being taste.
elnavegante/ShutterstockWhat is the healthiest type of pasta?
As a registered dietitian, I don’t think it’s necessary to consume food that you don’t like just because it’s considered healthy. For example, if I didn’t have protein—like meat, fish, or eggs—around, I might choose chickpea pasta over regular pasta. If I wanted to make a healthy pasta recipe using chicken and broccoli, I would probably choose a half cup of regular pasta because I prefer the flavor and density over the other two kinds of pasta.
Any type of pasta can be part of a healthy diet. The secret to healthy pasta eating isn’t the type of pasta, but how you prepare it and how much you eat.
First, it’s key to understand the appropriate serving and portion size of pasta. The American Diabetes Association, in conjunction with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, developed an exchange list that forms the foundation of a meal-planning system designed to help people stabilize their blood sugar. Using this exchange list can help you keep meals well balanced and ensure that you don’t overdo it in any food category. The list has determined that the appropriate serving size of uncooked pasta is a half cup. This starch exchange contains 15 grams of carbohydrates and 80 calories per serving, and this should act as your guide for eating pasta in a healthy way.
Healthy reasons to eat pasta
Pasta is often made out to be a guilty pleasure. But it actually boasts a number of health benefits that make it a true good-for-you food when eaten in the right amounts.
Pasta is associated with a significantly better diet quality overall, as well as a greater intake of so-called “shortfall nutrients,” including: folate, magnesium, and dietary fiber. Nutrients that are under-consumed and are a public health concern are known as shortfall nutrients.
Research in Frontiers in Nutrition also shows that people who eat pasta have lower daily intakes of saturated fat and added sugar than non-pasta eaters. Although we don’t know exactly why, we think it may be because those who incorporate pasta as part of a balanced diet are less likely to feel deprived and, therefore, less likely to binge when presented with the opportunity to eat pasta.
Pasta has shortfall nutrients
The shortfall nutrients offer additional benefits. Folate is a B vitamin that helps to convert carbs into energy and keep insulin levels consistent. It also helps with weight management.
Magnesium regulates muscle function throughout the body—including the heart muscle. It also helps regulate your sleep cycle and can help you drift off to sleep. Regular sleep helps keep your metabolism regulated and helps with weight maintenance, too.
As for fiber, we all know that consuming fiber helps you stay full longer, which leads to eating appropriate portions at subsequent meals. Having the right amount of pasta paired with fiber-rich vegetables and protein can ensure that you eat pasta without feeling as though it’s wreaking havoc on your waistline—because it isn’t!
Just keep in mind: Although the important shortfall nutrients and fiber balance out pasta, it is still high in calories and carbohydrates. You should consider it as part of your regular diet, or at least not the enemy. The trick to enjoying it fully? Stick to the appropriate serving sizes and pair it with protein and other high-fiber foods.
Bottom line: Pasta can be part of a healthy diet
Pasta is a wonderful, delicious, nutritious part of any diet. As long as you remember to watch your portions, you should be able to enjoy this staple of Italian cuisine as part of a balanced healthy diet.
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Pasta Consumption Is Linked to Greater Nutrient Intakes and Improved Diet Quality in American Children and Adults, and Beneficial Weight-Related Outcomes Only in Adult Females"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Chickpea Pasta"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Brown Rice Pasta"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Pasta"
- Diabetes Education Services: "The Diabetic Exchange Diet"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Food Exchange Lists"
- Italy Magazine: "So, How Many Pasta Shapes Are There?"